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Steve Jobs

A good friend of mine and a man I respect immensely, Hunter Baker, warned me to finish Isaacson’s long biography of Steve Jobs before passing too much judgment on the life and personality of the technology genius. Another close friend (a fellow Apple fanatic going back to the 1980s when we were debate colleagues and constant companions), Ron Strayer, told me that he never read biographies of anyone who just died, as there simply could not be enough distance from the subject to offer any kind of meaningful and objective viewpoint of the person’s life. Both, wise men.

Me, though…I was eager to write, especially about one of my three greatest childhood heroes. So, last week, while sitting in the Austin/Bergstrom airport, I wrote my synopsis and reaction to the first half of the biography, and I was less than thrilled with the personality and life of the Apple co-creator. Perhaps passion got the best of me. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t likely be the last time.

As I concluded:

Despite all of this and the gut-wrenching rending of a childhood hero, I must state that there is still much to admire about Jobs, especially his imagination, his aesthetics, and his tenacity. More than anything else, as with my other two heroes from the 1980s, Jobs desired excellence and pursued it in all things. Sadly, though, all of this came at the cost of an intense personal manipulation. Having completed half of the biography, I can conclude that Jobs was an Manichean Epicurean Nietzschean, driven by his Eastern adopted and adapted “Intuition” and spirituality. Yet, for better or worse, I still love all things Apple, and I’ve more than happily typed this piece on my Macbook Air.

Our own man from Kathmandu, Steve Masty, suggested that we might label much of this the “Jobsian heresy.”

Had I waited to write the full review and post it at once, rather than in two parts, my overall assessment would have been quite different, as Jobs did grow, not only in personality but, even more, in genius.

My conclusion about the author, Walter Isaacson, wouldn’t have changed, however. He is certainly not a bad writer, but he’s also not a good writer. He never seems to get into the soul or essence of Jobs, and he repeats his ideas and facts incessantly. The big conclusion is that Jobs preferred a closed and integrated form of computer instead of the Bill Gates and Google approach toward openness. If this is really the sum of a man’s life, God protect us all! Isaacson’s writing style possesses all the tapioca blandness of a Time magazine article, with an outrageous number of f-bombs dropped for “good measure.” Time magazine is bad enough, but an NC-17 Time is almost too much to take at times.

Still, the information Isaacson reveals is fascinating, and Jobs, of course, even more so.

When one takes into account how much of Jobs’s life really revolves around the pursuit of excellence, the reader is forced to scratch his head in wonder: why didn’t he ask the best biographers such as David McCulloch or Joe Pearce to write this? Why ask a mediocre writer? Perhaps because Isaacson has connections in the world of power?  I must admit, no matter how much I admire Jobs (and I do), this choice seems like one of his worst mistakes, especially considering the position this book will always hold in the history of the U.S. and the world over the last fifty years. Frankly, the writing just is not up to the standards Jobs himself set. But, it’s a done deal, and my guess is that this book has sold well, though I’ve not looked into the numbers.

But, back to the subject of the biography…. By any standard, Jobs wowed the business and technological world with his return to Apple in 1996. After (he only earned something around $4 for his services over the first four years back at Apple!), he accomplished so much, it’s more than a bit boggling to the mind. He introduced OS X, arguably the greatest operating system software ever made. Currently, it’s enjoying status as Mountain Lion, OS X.8. He introduced the iPod and the iTunes store which has almost completely remade the music industry, decentralizing it and destroying the once all powerful music labels. Under his leadership and direction, Apple also released the iPhone, revolutionizing the cell phone industry, as well the iPad, which has ushered in what Jobs has termed the “post-pc” world.

When one considers that Jobs also introduced the Apple II as well as the Macintosh, his legacy becomes clear.

In each thing, Jobs strove for the best he could offer.

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. Sculley [who drove Jobs out of Apple in 1985] flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, who gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings [Isaacson, 567].

What allowed all of this? It’s hard to state, frankly, and Isaacson never attempts to explain it at any fundamental level.

In all things, whatever they might be (except for picking his biographer), Jobs pursued excellence. Despite his embrace of eastern mysticism, various aspects of Hinduism, and Zen from a young age, Jobs’s god seems to have been whatever was perfect and creative in man. The creativity, though, Jobs thought, could only be presented by man. Its sources came from beyond. Tellingly, after Yo-Yo Ma performed privately for him in his own home, Jobs wept (he cried all of the time; he never hid any emotion, good or bad). “You playing is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.”

As I look over his life, three things made Jobs a better person in terms of his interaction with others. He never lost his blatant emotionalism, his temper tantrums, his best/terrible judgments about anything and everything imaginable, or his uncensored criticisms. And, frankly, it doesn’t take a prude to note that Jobs’s vocabulary remained rather limited and scandalously limited to barnyard imaginary. The three things/persons who bettered him: 1) his wife and children; 2) his admiration for Pixar’s John Lassiter and his appreciation of wholesome entertainment; and 3) the humility of being forced out of Apple in 1985.

A reader of The Imaginative Conservative might understandably desire to know Jobs’s views on such things as politics, economics, etc. Whatever his counter-cultural leanings, Jobs remained decidedly anti-authoritarian in his views.  No one managed him, certainly.  He seems to have respected Reagan and, while he appreciated Obama’s mind, he lamented the current president’s inability to accomplish anything productive, to privilege the political over all else, and to make excuses for every failure.  Jobs especially despised teacher’s unions, believing they had set back American education by generations. But, to be fair, Jobs seems to have despised all unions as instruments to enforce privileged mediocrity. Again, it’s clear that Jobs loved—and, I use this word very specifically—excellence of any kind, and he deeply resented any person, idea, or institution that hindered it.

Not surprisingly, his great heroes in industry were Hewlitt and Packard, though he considered them failures when it came to building a legacy for their company.

Out of industry, Jobs revered Bob Dylan, and Dylan’s music, lyrics, and career probably inspired him more than any other figure in his life. He especially loved the story of Dylan going “electric” and encountering resistance from his fans.  In 1966, while touring in Europe, Dylan played the first set as acoustic folk; the second set as electric rock.  Just as he transitioned at once concert, a “fan” yelled out “Judas!” Dylan merely looked at his band and said, “Play it f–king loud.”

Jobs said this every day of his life. Far more often than not, he got away with it.

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5 replies to this post
  1. There are two reasons why I do not wonder if Jobs sold his soul to the devil: (a) I am busy; and (b) the good and noble Brad Birzer liked/likes him. Otherwise why not? While one hates to dabble in what is only God’s business and guess about other people’s souls, Hitler was very kind to animals and was a devout vegetarian. Rousseau broke down and wept at every opportunity. Savonarola and Osama (for that matter) were idealists singularly committed to excellence in whatever they did. Granted, those bums were largely computer-illiterate but otherwise so what? Bill Gates eventually gave most of his money to charity (either for noble reasons or because he had tired of techno-victories, God can decide). But what of Jobs?

    Up the road from my flat in Kathmandu, young monastics burn themselves to death because of what the Han Chinese do to their Tibetan homeland and their Buddhist faith, while Apple has recently pulled “aps” that offend the Communist Chinese government. I seem to recall that this isn’t the first time, but I may be mistaken. The Chinese are commercially important to Apple, which once featured HH the Dalai Lama on one of their hip Californiac ads. The recent Apple atrocity happened after Jobs died, but maybe the bio will discuss his possible accommodation with China earlier. It would be interesting to hear.

    Anyway, Faust-like, if Jobs sold his soul to Lucifer in return for technological mastery and commercial empire, propelled by his great ambition and drive, he might have bequeathed shareholders a company that packaged itself as an Earth-First, conscience-rich, funko-trendo-cooler-than-thou outfit that was in fact different than it seemed. As I said, I do not know and I will take this on faith from Dr Birzer whom I trust, respect and admire fully.

  2. Is “excellence” indeed a worthy goal? I’m not going to read Isaacson’s biography of the real life John Galt–as Steve Masty says, “I’m busy”–perhaps most of all because it is not possible for a sane man to admire both Yo-Yo Ma and Bob Dylan. I suspect that Jobs really dug the latter, which also helps to explain the Faustian bargain. I am also content that my wonderful friend Brad will always find more spiritual meaning in Apple than I do.

  3. John, I begin to understand Zen after too many years of study. Unlike other Buddhisms, its center is a moral vacuum, dependent on the assumption that goodness will fill in. Otherwise it is a tool for mental focus and little more. Zen can thus justify enormous cruelty to others, and self-satisfaction. So i learn how it can have such appeal to hard-bitten and ambitious tycoons of the Me Generation variety.

  4. Brad, Thanks for a very interesting review. I doubt I’ll ever read this book (or any book) on Jobs. But your comments were enjoyable and enlightening! P.S. My grandfather used to be the commander at Bergstrom in the 1960s. I remember visiting there as a child, after his retirement, and seeing the F-4s and F-111s up close. He’s a Pacific/Korean War vet and still alive. I was in Austin last month.

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